“Beautiful,” the bio-musical about Carole King now playing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, will feel awfully familiar to those who have seen “Jersey Boys.”
Both were written by screenwriter/directors with impressive pedigrees. Each centers on artists from New York’s lesser ‘burbs (King was a Brooklyn girl at a time when Brooklyn and New Jersey had equal working-class credibility). Both are stuffed with songs every living boomer knows by heart, sung by actors portraying famous groups of the era.
And their stories trace the same familiar trajectory of early triumph, followed by personal and professional adversity and poisoned relationships, and ending with the ultimate stardom – mega-success, tempered by the wisdom of hard-knock experience.
Only one thing can transform something workaday and formulaic into a worthwhile two-and-a-half hour experience: good performances. Fortunately, this road-show production of “Beautiful” has plenty of them.
Sarah Bockel might not have the singular appeal of Jessie Mueller, who won Tony and Drama Desk awards in 2014 for her portrayal of King in the Broadway production of “Beautiful,” but she’s very appealing. Her voice, while not a slavish copy of King’s attractively flawed and expressive instrument, is close enough, especially when she performs the singer-songwriter’s later ballads.
Bockel also captures King’s shyness and essential decency as you watch her character mature credibly from a manic teen into a care-worn single mom approaching middle age. King never lost her quality of approachability even as “Tapestry,” her era-defining 1971 album, turned her voice into something close to family for many people. She was, by her own admission, a bashful and conventional girl who just wanted a normal life for herself and her family.
King accepted personal fame reluctantly. There’s a wonderful scene in the second act in which she practically has to be marched to the stage of a small club with a gun to her head to perform her songs in public for the first time. But behind the scenes, King was a seasoned master by her early 20s – a quality brought home during a couple of studio sessions where she is indisputably the master of her universe.
Dylan S. Wallach plays Gerry Goffin, King’s writing partner and teen husband, and he’s got a tough mountain to climb with a troubled, self-absorbed and frequently unlikeable character. Goffin’s mounting insecurity about his art morphs into mental instability, but there’s a silver lining to their disastrous marriage and tumultuous breakup: it leads to some of King’s most personal and heartfelt songs. Wallach never loses a bead on Goffin’s secret weapon: his magnetism.
Alison Whitehurst and Jacob Heimer play the show’s second leads, the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (he alternates with two others in the role). They bring welcome levity to the show. He’s a classically neurotic Manhattan native, and he’s tortured by her reluctance to tie the knot. She’s a brassy, confident woman who knows what she wants. Too bad Heimer is performing only through Thursday – he has a dynamite voice.
Eventually, Carole adopts some of Cynthia’s moxie. In a corny but satisfying scene, she dumps troublesome Gerry with the line: “The girls deserve something better. And you know what? So do I.” In this raw post-Kavanaugh moment, the line drew lusty applause..
The plot follows King’s life sketchily but faithfully through the release of “Tapestry” and her Carnegie Hall concert, which ends the show at a satisfying moment in her career arc. A talented ensemble plows through many of the era’s iconic hits – “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “On Broadway,” “The Locomotion” – often doing credible impersonations of the artists of the day, from Neil Sedaka to the Shirelles, The Drifters to The Righteous Brothers.
Marc Bruni directs a crisply paced show that’s not exactly distinguished by choreography (Josh Prince puts his hoofers through the expected motions with ’60s dance numbers) or scenic design (Derek McLane’s abstract sets establish the scene and era but don’t offer much flash or detail).
If you hummed those tunes I just mentioned, then this show is definitely for you, and others within your presumed age group. Happily, this tour offers a bonus: actors that make the most of this tame material and know how to sell timeless songs, making them sound both nostalgic and fresh in the process.
Paul Hodgins is the senior editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.